The struggle for reproductive justice in Ireland – where are we now?


Anthea McTeirnan
In February this year we found out a little more about the state of the State’s psyche when an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll showed strong public support for the Government’s plan to legislate on abortion. It also showed that a substantial majority of voters back much wider access to abortion than that being proposed by the Government. Asked if the Government should legislate for the 1992 X case to allow abortion where a mother’s life is in danger, including the threat of suicide, 71 per cent said yes, 11 per cent said no and 18 per cent had no opinion.

Asked a separate question about whether abortion should not be permitted under any circumstances or allowed in certain circumstances, 12 per cent of respondents said it should never be permitted, while 85 per cent said it should be allowed in certain circumstances. The circumstances where the public supports the availability of abortion include: where a woman’s life is at risk (84 per cent); where the foetus is not capable of surviving outside the womb, (79 per cent); in cases of rape or incest (78 per cent). Some 70 per cent were in favour of allowing abortion in cases where a woman’s health is at risk.

The debate has changed – changed utterly from 1983, 30 years ago, when the electorate voted to enshrine Article 40.3.3, a clause that put the life of a fully grown woman on the same footing as a fertilised ovum, into our Constitution. Some things have not changed. The week before the people went to the polls to vote on Article 40.3.3., the church was out in force. The Amendment had Papal support: “If the Pope was an Irishman, on Wednesday he’d be voting ‘yes’, Father Colman Carrigy a priest in Co Longford, reminded his parishioners.

The Catholic church continues to lobby politicians and have access to them at the highest level. On January 18th, 2013, the Government was entertaining members of the Catholic church for tea and discussions of current issues, specifically abortion. We can well guess what was said. The Bishop of Elphin, Dr Christopher Jones had told the Oireachtas Health Committee earlier that month that “It is not necessary to legislate for the X case to ensure that women in Ireland receive all the life-saving treatment they need during pregnancy.’’

Try telling that to Savita and Praveen Halappanavar. They had asked for a termination at University College Hospital, Galway, as Savita lay in agony miscarrying her baby last October, but were told she couldn’t have one for “legal reasons”.

Speaking at the hearings, Bishop Jones said other options were available to the Government that did not involve legislating for abortion. “We believe both these options should be fully explored by the Oireachtas.”

The time has come to end the Catholic Church’s unseemly control of the bodies of women in Ireland. The polls show that many people think that it is no longer acceptable for a group of celibate men to tell sexually active women how to control their wonderful reproductive capabilities. The Catholic Church must find a new path.

Their supporters must find a new path, too. The Pro-Lifers (to use their own label) – The Life Institute, Iona, Youth Defence – have lost. All the Youth Defence billboard campaign last summer did was mobilise pro-choice freedom fighters. The public are sick and tired of unsolicited robot calls from automated telephone lines. TDs are sick and tired of the hectoring communication that lands in their in-boxes and letter-boxes every day. We may not have their money, but we have the communication skills of millionaires compared to Youth Defence.

And it pays off. Anecdotally, the National Women’s Council’s brilliant online email campaign, which just respectfully reminded our public representatives that many of their constituents favour legislation on X, and followed this up with another email thanking them for their support, has been well received by TDs, who for the first time have reported that the pro-choice side is demonstrably outnumbering the anti-choicers. It is making a difference. The politicians know we are here, and they know we have votes. We need to stay in their personal space – but in a nice way.

One of the other changes that is helping us edge towards victory is the democratisation of the media. Social media has strengthened the connections between us and allowed women to tell their stories without mediation. The amazing women of Termination For Medical Reasons, Ireland deserve a big cheer here as they are making excellent use of the space to fight for us all. Social media allows women to tell their stories in a way that the male-dominated mainstream media doesn’t. The blogs are definitely working.

So, where are we now? We are in a good place. We are going to win. We are going to get reproductive justice for everyone in this State.

A caveat however: the X-Case was greeted by the moral outrage that the plight of the 14-year old Ms X, impregnated by a rapist, then stopped from having an abortion in England by our highest law officer, deserved. The protests were swift and they were powerful and heartfelt. But the outrage did not equal action by our legislature. Now we have had the death of Savita Halappanavar. The outrage was, again, strong and palpable. The protests were powerful and heartfelt.

There was no political imperative 30 years ago. Well, now there is. There is a political imperative because of the A,B,C judgment – and the Government must act. The difference between the X Case in 1992 and now is that the Council of Europe is watching. There is political imperative. Thanks to the three brave women who took their cases to Strasbourg in 2010, the Irish Government has to act.

But when that is addressed – and it will be addressed, but only in the narrowest terms – what do we do?

The political environment is supportive, the opinion polls are underlining that, the Dáil is (believe it or not) more liberal than it has been for a long time. We have new tools at our disposal to help us get our message out. It is a time of change.

On Sunday, February 10th, Ireland lost out to England in this year’s Six Nations. Dublin’s Aviva stadium was packed with 50,000 people. Imagine three Aviva stadiums, full of Irish women – upset, angry, worried.

Three Aviva Stadiums. That is how many women this country has exported to access abortions in other countries since January 1980. Legislation on X will not change anything for most of the women in our three putative stadiums. Getting safe and legal abortion for women in Ireland who choose it is our task. And it seems that the democratic will of the people is swinging behind us.

Anthea McTeirnan is a member of the Abortion Rights Campaign. She is a former chair of the Irish Family Planning Association.